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Participation. A pictogram by James Wickham

Participation is one of the original 10 Principles of Burning Man. The 10 Principles were originally written by Larry Harvey in 2004 as a guide to the organization of Burning Man, and later adopted as a model of thinking and behaviour for participants to follow at the event, and in their lives generally.


"Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart."

The core of this principle is a statement of aspirational belief, "We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. The virtue being sought here is 'transformative change' at a societal or personal level. The mechanism is deeply personal participation both on and off the playa, with the emphasis on 'doing', be it work or play.

It is notable that the principle makes no mention of the direction or destination that this transformation might take or lead us to, and that it emphasizes 'doing' and makes no mention of thinking, planning, reflecting or reviewing. The concluding sentence, "We make the world real through actions that open the heart." suggests however a greater role for 'feeling' and honesty and trust than the earlier remarks allowed.

As a Burning 'Principle' and its relation to other Burning Principles

It is important to understand that all principles apply equally and concurrently. The principles were designed to all work, and to all work together. No principle can be used to justify an act of commission or omission that violates any other principle. Principles do not 'conflict' with each other or 'contradict' each other because no principle is intended to be considered or applied in isolation from all the remaining principles. No principle takes away from any other principle, there is an additive effect.

Neither the Principles or the Burning Man community have ever provided any sure guidance about what how to find the balance between different principles, or in their application and conflict with 'norms of society. A useful (but not universally useful) tool in such circumstances is to apply the party-goers 'general ethical guidance', "Don't be the dick." In the language of the Principles this would be known as an injunction against 'Radical Self Entitlement'.

Interactions between this principle and real world circumstances in the context of Burns

The elucidation of the principle in this statement is deficient in two respects. Firstly that the principle makes no observation about where this transformational change might lead or leave us. We might assume it's a better world and a better ourselves, but what does 'better' mean? One where our fears are banished rather than assimilated, one where common purpose is valued more highly than individual thought? The demoralized German citizenry were - for the most part - re-energized by all that 'doing' - the parades and rallies and mass sports events (and even holidays) that were organized by the Nationalist Socialist Party, and likely thought that this was a positive transformation. A few brave voices were raised and maintained in protest, but for the most part people - it seemed - had given themselves up to the experience, rather thinking and reflecting.

Which leads to the second deficiency in the statement of principle. There is no mention of thinking or reflection. Certainly the emphasis on 'doing' is a necessary antidote to those who'd think too much and do too little, who would spend their time in social media - or wikis - rather than 'achieving' anything. But again, the healthy balance between thinking and doing can never be exactly defined or achieved, and the best remedy for any perceived imbalance is simply to promote both. In addressing 'action' without mention of thinking (as in planning and reflection) this principle misses an opportunity. And in failing to stress the importance of thinking about where our transformation is taking us, it risks negating the real world virtue of this principle altogether.

Activating Participation

A Burn Principle is not intended as a description of 'what is', but rather a guide to taking active steps - and not just within the Burn community. Examples of 'Participation' include:

  • Volunteering
  • Participation in presenting a Theme Camp or Artwork
  • Following the precepts of 'Gifting' and 'Immediacy'

This principle in wider historic and philosophical contexts

The Ten Principles of Burning Man are in class known as 'Moral Systems' All attempts at creating a universal 'Moral System' have failed, and they have at times incorporated elements that we would reject, and have been championed and fought over at the expense of lives and nations.

Danny Usery makes the point that although sets of moral principles ideally should not contain inherent contradictions, in practice they often do. He suggests that in resolving those conflicts - which is necessary in order to follow those moral principles in 'real life', a person should apply a set of theory rules (or ethical principles) which will guide you in your application of those moral principles. He acknowledges the existence of multiple examples of ethical principles (such as Utilitarian or Kantian) and further acknowledges that the a person attempting to choose amongst these various ethical principles might seek further guidance, using some criteria to do so, and some ethical principles to understand which criteria to use, and so on ad infinitum.

The Burning Man Principles and Community provide no specific guidance on what 'ethical principles' should guide a Burners (or a Burn Organizer's) view towards and application of the Ten Principles. The 'purist' might hold that Burns should not charge money, and in fact should not be organized by anyone - but in fact organized by everyone. This viewpoint finds its nearest expression in the Rainbow Gathering movement. Others would hold that the Burn is an opportunity to showcase 'ideals', but the showcase has to exist in the 'real world' and comply with the economic and legal constraints of the real world as it stands now while we work to bring the 'real world' into line with our 'showcased world'. Some will hold that 'the pure is the enemy of the good', and others will say that 'If you want to do anything, do it now, without compromise or concession, because you have only one life. Gao Xingjian

Expressions and Artwork

On and off-playa installations have been created to express this principle. Perth graphic designer James Wickham created a set of pictographs in 2015 to illustrate the Ten Principles, and these have been widely praised and adopted.

See Also


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